Pausing the Playlist: Reflections on D&D8

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Originally written for Exeunt.

This is a column that almost didn’t happen. Stepping out of the pub far later than intended after my first experience of Devoted & Disgruntled, head full to the brim with provocations and projects, the weekend struck me as impossible to write about. The very set-up of the event, cultivating an atmosphere of gentle, creative anarchy, resists being wrestled into any kind of structure. But one suggestion, voiced in the dying moments of the second day as a microphone slowly passed around the wide circle of people gathered in York Hall, seems a fittingly optimistic place to start. Theatremaker Tom Spencer had the idea of a D&D playlist: a collectively assembled set of songs that inspire us, motivate us, make us want to make things. The spirit of D&D captured and set to a beat.

Thinking about it over the past week, the contribution I’ve finally found myself settling on is ‘This Is Radio Clash’. Partly because I nurture a fierce and long-held love for The Clash, partly because it’s the song that nudges me out of the house in the early morning, blaring through my earphones as I negotiate the commuter-clogged Overground. But also partly for the line that always shouts out loudest: “can we get that world to listen?” Because it feels as though that’s what D&D is about: listening. An exchange in which our opinions on theatre are not simply stated, but involved in a true dialogue, a back and forth that involves as much listening as speaking; more listening, sometimes, for those like me perched sponge-like at the edge of discussions, absorbing different perspectives and ideas.

Beginning with this playlist feels doubly apt, because music repeatedly and perhaps surprisingly interweaved with theatre across the two days that I attended. With dozens of sessions called (the event’s Open Space format allows for anyone to propose a subject for discussion) it’s somewhat futile to trace journeys through the event, as these will differ vastly from individual to individual, each beating their own track. Even to fully retread my own track would take much more than the space I have here. Yet music felt like a recurring comparison, making a refreshingly outward looking reference point against which we in theatre might measure what we’re doing. It’s sometimes vital to remember, equally in practice and in criticism, that theatre exists alongside and in a horizontal relation to other art forms, from which it might feed and learn.

From parallels with the heady joy of discovery on the music scene and how this might be reflected in the variety of the fringe, to touring models and performing at festivals, the comparison became a repeatedly fruitful one over the weekend. Witnessing the crossover with other live culture in this way, it strikes me that it’s worth giving greater thought to the space in which these live encounters take place. As Maddy Costa pointed out in one session, we’re good at shouting about why people should come to the theatre, but we rarely try taking it to them; perhaps we should look instead to the model of live music (and comedy) in pubs and bars, inhabiting a recognisable social space. There was also the appealing suggestion that, in the same way that bands have supporting acts, theatre shows might open with snippets or scratches from emerging companies – though the problematic label of “emerging” was itself a matter of debate elsewhere, as we collectively tussled with the definitions we deploy and the effects these have.

While mired in these and other knotty thoughts from the first day, I happened on Saturday night to read Andrew Haydon’s blog on Marxism and Theatre, in which he too points to a connection with music, specifically in terms of the classlessness implied by the gig. In doing so, he mentions Simon Stephens, whose writing is so often drenched in music, and who spoke in a recent interview about how his love for theatre was born from a realisation that it could incorporate the “edgy live-ness of a gig”. I have my reservations about this idea of “liveness” – it’s a word that we all throw around a lot without really interrogating what we mean by it and that has gained an extra fetishised appeal in a digital world that so often eschews the live, real life encounter – but I can’t help feeling there’s the grain of something truthful in it.

There is, after all, something undeniably appealing about the live, something thrilling enough to entice music fans to part with their money when they could just as easily listen to the same tracks at home for free. What we buy into when we go to a gig is the idea of the unpredictable and the unique, the idea that no other performance will ever be quite like this, that this exact group of people will never again be gathered in the same room together – that there’s something special about simply being there. The best gigs – those not in massive, soulless arenas – also have something of a levelling effect, an effect that I think can be exaggerated and romanticised, but that does go much further in eroding divisions than auditoriums where it’s clear who has paid the most to be there.

Which all sounds a lot like the most exciting and inspiring theatre I go to see. And which also, incidentally, sounds quite a bit like D&D itself; the lack of structure and hierarchy, the element of unpredictability, the mantra that whoever comes are the right people.

This is not to view the weekend from behind entirely rose-tinted glasses. In a world and an industry so often governed by structure and convention, I’ll admit that the free movement and intellectual curiosity fostered by the respectful chaos of D&D can be oddly bewildering. Despite the signs taped up around the room reminding us of the “law of two feet”, it took me most of the first day to acclimatise to the idea that moving on from a session is not a sign of rudeness, in much the same way as I doubt I’ll ever be able to walk out of a theatre show. The freedom to flit from group to group can also be torturously tantalising, offering too many fascinating discussions to settle on one and throwing up missed or half-heard sessions – like those on the notion of artist as parasiteand the desire for more European theatre – that immediately prompt the wish for a time-turner.

But while some sessions felt frustratingly formless – frustrating for me, that is, hence using my two feet to get more usefully involved elsewhere – the overwhelming atmosphere was one of motivation for change, dismissing criticisms that the event is all talk and no action. Perhaps that has something to do with the enforced urgency of the present moment; whatever the reason, session after session that I sat in on over the weekend resulted in solid commitments to begin driving towards the change that was so passionately discussed. And change is, again, tied up with that vital act of listening, of tuning in to another’s rhythm, pausing as we skip through the playlist. Can we get that world to listen? If theatre is to have any hope of getting others to pay attention, it seems essential that we first find a way of listening to one another.

How could technology change theatre criticism for good?

Originally written for The Guardian.

Discussions about the future of theatre criticism seem to be evergreen. It is a debate that continues to impassion bloggers, and one that arose again at the latest instalment of Devoted and Disgruntled back in February, in a session challenging the barrier traditionally erected between theatremakers and critics. One linked but relatively neglected aspect of the conversation, however, is how criticism might fully explore and exploit the growing possibilities allowed by digital developments.

When it comes to digital, I think we’re all still fumbling around in the dark. In the world of theatre comment, this has manifested itself in recurring, sometimes ugly debates between mainstream critics and the blogging community. But what if the technology at our disposal offers more than occasion for conflict? While words alone can create a rich tapestry of critical response, imagine how much richer this might be with the addition of images, video, audio, geotagging, experimental forms such as Pinterest – the list goes on. Despite having such options at their fingertips, the majority of those writing theatre criticism for the web remain trapped in the conventional print review format: a block of text that often tries to avoid spoilers. Myriad possibilities are there, but it seems we’re slow to adopt them.

This is not to dismiss all theatre writers as luddites. Some bloggers and critics are embracing the possibilities of digital criticism and experiments are beginning to take shape. Twitter, for instance, has opened up instant discussion, allowing theatregoers to share their thoughts from the moment they step out of the auditorium. Luke Murphy has taken the trend to another level by aggregating such reviews on one feed – an intriguing idea, but one arguably limited by the tweet’s inherent brevity.

Matt Trueman, meanwhile, played with structure in his clickable review of Constellations earlier in the year, an experiment that had its flaws but asked fascinating questions about how the form of theatre criticism might reflect the form of the theatre being critiqued. A rich and ever-increasing variety of digital formats offer the opportunity to go even further. Might we begin to see purely visual responses to theatre through platforms such as Pinterest, or more video responses along the lines of blogger Eve Nicol’s refreshingly enthusiastic YouTube reviews?

Beyond experimenting with form, and returning to the discussions initiated at Devoted and Disgruntled, the digital space even has the potential to set out a whole new model for how critics might engage with the theatre they write about. Theatre writers Jake Orr and Maddy Costa are beginning to do just this through the creation of Dialogue, an online playground where theatre makers, writers and spectators can open up new conversations. Thanks to the flexibility allowed by online criticism, where page space is not an issue and responses can go further than words, the role of the critic could in future go beyond reviewing to play a greater part in the space between theatre, creator and audience.

The possibilities raised by digital technology pose more questions than they answer, but these are questions that beg to be thrown open for wider debate. How might digital experimentation impact upon mainstream criticism? How can we play with form and structure to create the theatre criticism of the future? And, crucially, what implications does digital innovation have for the evolving role of the critic?

Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/EPA